In a dramatic turn of events, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was released from a prison in Curitiba, Brazil, on Friday, following a tense sitting of the supreme court to decide the fate of prisoners who have not exhausted the appeals process open to them. Lula’s release has widely been understood as a significant victory for the Left in Brazil.
The supreme court order overruled a previous judgment, which stated that the founding member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers’ Party, should spend his entire 12-year term in prison, despite him not fully exhausting all legal avenues to appeal against his conviction.
Lula, as the former president is affectionately known, was convicted for corruption and money laundering in July 2017 following “Operation Car Wash”, an investigation led by Judge Sérgio Moro, whose conduct has been widely criticised as dubious. Lula was imprisoned in April 2018.
Operation Car Wash initially probed money laundering but widened its scope to uncover allegations of corruption at the state oil giant Petrobras. Eminent legal experts have described the investigation as deeply flawed.
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson wrote, “Prosecutors have found no hard evidence linking him to alleged crimes, yet they have used aggressive tactics, such as leaking wiretapped recordings of him making personal telephone calls to his family, to publicly embarrass him. In this and other ways, Lula’s case has raised crucial questions about Brazil’s judicial system: specifically, whether it can ensure him a fair trial and protect the due process rights of those accused of corruption.”
After being handed a trove of secret documents, the news organisation The Intercept published an explosive investigative story, which found that “Brazil’s most powerful prosecutors, who have spent years insisting they are apolitical, instead plotted to prevent the Workers’ Party, or PT, from winning the 2018 presidential election by blocking or weakening a pre-election interview with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with the explicit purpose of affecting the outcome of the election.”
Lula was president from 2003 to 2011 before being replaced by Dilma Rousseff, a former radical guerilla. Rousseff was impeached in 2016 after she was found guilty of breaking budget laws. She maintains she did not act criminally and the impeachment has often been described as a rightwing “coup”.
Lula addresses his supporters
After being released, Lula spoke on João Basso street in San Bernardo to a sea of elated supporters dressed in red. He said he had spent 580 days in solitary confinement. The 74-year-old shouted, “I want to build this country with the same joy we built it when we governed. The only thing I’m sure of is that I have more courage to fight than when I left here.”
His words were met with much applause and cheering from the diverse crowd outside the metalworkers’ union, while flags waved high. A number of people fainted. Others were delirious with emotion, holding up the “L” sign with their hands while singing songs of adoration. Some freely shared bread with members of the crowd as a “symbol of the struggle for Lula”.
“If we know how to work well, in 2022 the Left, which Bolsonaro is so afraid of, will bring down the ultra-right. This country does not deserve the government it has,” shouted Lula.
Lula explained that the country cannot allow the militia to destroy what the Workers’ Party has achieved, adding that Bolsonaro was elected for the people, not to protect the militias of Rio de Janeiro, which are alleged to be receiving protection from Bolsonaro and his family. In the spirit of regionalism, Lula also spoke more broadly about the Latin American countries currently under siege by neoliberal forces.
A leader for the people
Joao Rodrigues of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), the Landless Workers’ Movement, said Lula’s release is important because he has emerged as a principal leader not only in the party, but also within trade unions. He is a politician who takes people’s interests to heart. With well over a million members, the MST, a peasant organisation that works for land reform, organises land occupations. “There is no other political leader in Brazil who has had that kind of close relationship with the people and with the working class,” said Rodrigues.
Having visited Lula in prison just two days before his release, Rodrigues described him as energetic, talkative and determined. “Lula is also one of the only leaders who can activate the inspiration, hope and energy in the people because they’ve suffered a big defeat in the last presidential election.”
Rodrigues explained that six years after what felt like the end of the dominance of the Workers’ Party, and three years after Rousseff was ousted, the Brazilian people felt crushed. When the rightwing Brazilian Social Democratic Party won the 2018 elections, the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro ascended to power. “People were very demoralised, and the release of Lula is something that gives the people the energy to keep fighting.”
Speaking outside the metalworkers’ union headquarters after hearing Lula speak, a member of the crowd, Cátia Coach, said Lula gave her hope for a better Brazil that includes the marginalised. “It’s very important for him to be free because he is the best representative of Brazil. Lula is peace, love and work. He is iconic … People need work and dignity and no more racism.”
Raquel Andretto, who was also in the crowd, described Lula as an articulate leader who respects women, unlike Bolsonaro. “He always inserts women and black people in government. It was because of Lula that we had our first female president. Lula represents the progress of women,” said Andretto.
The anti-poor president
Since his ascension to power, Bolsonaro has made a plethora of crude anti-poor pronouncements. He has also moved towards privatising state resources, selling natural resources and reducing pension benefits. Lula has remarked that Bolsonaro’s tactics are part of “an economic project that will increasingly impoverish Brazilian society”. The number of homeless people in cities like São Paulo is at an all-time high because of anti-poor policy changes. Bolsonaro has also made extraordinarily racist, homophobic and anti-women statements, while also attacking indigenous people and the Quilombo, the settlements founded by escaped slaves.
“The vision of Bolsonaro is to disregard culture and the rights of marginalised communities, black people, LGBTQ and the poor. His focus is on a neoliberal economy,” said Rodrigues.
Recently, Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker and the president’s son, threatened repressive force and violence if the opposition radicalised and went the route of Chile, which is now experiencing widespread anti-government protests. He hinted at the possibility of a military dictatorship in Brazil, similar to the rule by decree used between 1965 and 1985 known as Institutional Act Number Five.
“It’s a dictatorial government filled with hatred so they advocate for the arming of society to resolve problems,” said Rodrigues. “He is focused on militarisation and weapons.”
Although Rodrigues believes Bolsonaro is just spouting government propaganda aimed at maintaining a small, dedicated base, about 10 000 residents of São Paulo met at the iconic Avenida Paulista to denounce the statement. Undeterred by a downpour that started 15 minutes before the protest, they made their way through busy blocked roads, banging drums and singing anti-Bolsonaro songs.
Felipe Gonçalves was at the São Paulo protest. “The public policies for the LGBTQIA+ are terrible and getting worse. We live in a country that kills most of our community and disappearances of our community are not seen by other people,” he said over loud chants of “Out with Bolsonaro”.
A pro-Bolsonaro march took place on the day of Lula’s address and, ironically, took place at Avenida Paulista, a street that has become a traditional space for resistance and visibility.
Raimundo Bonfim, an attorney who also works for the Central de movimentos populares, said Bolsonaro has neither the moral nor the intellectual capacity to run the country. “We are hopeful that we will bring the winds of change to South America from Brazil and make Bolsonaro fall so that the working class can have a better future,” he said.